On The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.
  • This piece was originally written for my old site, Oh What? Oh Jeez! As such, it may not have transferred over properly and some images and links might be broken (and, to a lesser extent, my writing from years ago is about 80% run-on sentences).

It’s so dense, every shot has so many things going on…

Rick McCallum, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith interview

 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was possibly the worst film I watched in 2013 (that I wasn’t watching because it was bad, as was the case with October Baby, Last Ounce of Courage, Cyberbu//y and The Room). Peter Jackson personally came up to me, looked at a smörgåsbord of things I like spread out before me, considered it, then promptly shat all over it. With that hilarious scatalogia out of the way, I shall now elaborate on why this film was a sack of balls. Note: I watched both films in 2D and normal framerate. Filthy liars have told me that this is in fact the reason I did not love them, but this is obviously daft unless a higher framerate also replaces the film on screen with something else, like The Two Towers, for example.

At the news the Jackson, after directing the Lord of the Rings trilogy (a trilogy that managed to consist of a full trio of not-crap films; Wachowski brothers, I’m looking at you), was returning to Middle-Earth to adapt The Hobbit, excitement was had. Hooray, another film on par with The Lord of the Rings!, thought I. Finally, I can call my Lord of the Rings marathons complete!, I dreamed. And it’s directed by Guillermo del Toro? Neat! Then came the bad news. I, Peter Jackson, am both fat and smell bad! To this end, I shall now stretch The Hobbit over three films! No, you damned mad Kiwi!, cried I. Don’t do it! Ha! Ha! Ha! I must leave now, to stomp all over more promising ideas! Jackson, away! I was left on my knees, punching feebly at the ground. Then, in an accidental moment of optimism, the thought crept into my mind. What if, actually, Jackson was still capable of good things, and this whole arrangement could work?

Nope. An Unexpected Journey was terrible; an overlong (and this from someone who likes the extended edition of The Return of the King), pondering mess of a film. By stretching one third of a short children’s novel out into a 169-minute epic, they had to both stretch out what little they had to an excruciating degree and fill the myriad gaps with anything else of Tolkien’s that they could lay hand on. As a result, any semblance of pacing gets taken round back and shot as dramatic chases lead to sudden flashbacks to some tenuously-related battle scene or what-have-you so that Jackson can get his rocks off. As an example of this, this Gandalf quote from The Hobbit book, Your grandfather Thrór was killed, you remember, in the mines of Moria by Azog the Goblin, is used as justification for the creation of an entire subplot in which Azog the Orc and his band of merry men go about trying to chase after the intrepid heroes and something something something motivation. Because having any real impact on the plot would go against the whole adaptation thing, Azog scenes are reduced to pointless faffery. Once An Unexpected Journey was finally over, ending with a cockteasing shot of Smaug’s eye but no real sense of closure (and a horrendously cheesy cor I’ve always hated you Bilbo…but not any moooore moment from Thorin), I was disheartened. Once again, that damned optimism crept in. Okay, Jackson was just getting through the dull bit first, the second movie will be much better!

Nope. The Desolation of Smaug is either far worse than An Unexpected Journey, or they’re just as bad as each other but The Desolation of Smaug is more fresh a wound. Either way, it’s not good by any stretch of the imagination. The faffing returns, this time in the form of entirely unnecessary foreshadowing of the rise of Sauron, again something that merited only the briefest of mentions in the book. This also leads to more goddamn Radagast and a cringeworthy scene in which Gandalf fights the power of darkness with light for what seems like twenty minutes in symbolism about as subtle as the Kool-Aid Man. The final battle with Smaug, which at a guess lasted about five hours, is jam-packed with Waterworld-style STUFF-DOING. I watched the debacle with a vague notion of what was happening, but I don’t think even that was necessary. Ropes are swung on, some mine carts do something, jumping, more jumping, ropes and jumping, fire, things falling over, a phenomenally daft plan to defeat Smaug consisting of either forming an entire statue of molten gold, or finding one there waiting for them, which after a timed delay (I’m no metallurgist, but…) explodes and drowns Smaug in about one metre of depth, only to be revealed to have been entirely pointless when he pops back up and flies off, thereby confirming that trying to kill a being that is sixty percent fire with hot metal is a poor plan. However, even Waterworld‘s stuff-doing used some interesting props and mechanisms; in The Desolation of Smaug, just about everything is CGI, and often-terrible CGI at that. After the fantastic miniature work, make up and costumes of The Lord of the Rings, seeing it all replaced with something that rarely even holds up at release, not to mention years later, is heartbreaking. Even more so when costumed orcs and elaborate sets are shown in some behind-the-scenes footage, only to be brushed under the carpet.

Beorn the bear charging

At least in An Unexpected Journey, the added faffing never seemed to actually overtake the source material. In The Desolation of Smaug, one of the best scenes and characters from the book, Beorn the bear-changing shapeshifter, gets roughly five minutes of screentime before ushering the heroes off to go to something uninteresting. Even this brief scene is intercut by one of Azog the still-in-this-film-for-the-sole-purpose-of-doing-nothing-at-all Orc and his crew considering an attack on the house, containing the Dwarves that the orcs had been chasing for the entire last film and one man-bear who apparently had his entire race single-handedly massacred by Azog in the past (mercifully not used for more flashback padding, which seems to be limited to lines from Balin), then deciding against it because then they might have some impact on the plot and justify their existence. They also come back later for an attack on Lake-town in which nothing happens.

Lake-town also brings up another issue with the film: casting. Martin Freeman may well be a good actor, I don’t know and have never seen Sherlock, but his style of self-deprecating quirkiness sticks out alongside the super-seriousness of everyone else like a sore thumb. Richard Armitage does his best to be as good as Viggo Mortensen as Thorin, but for obvious reasons (he isn’t Viggo Mortensen) does not succeed. Stephen Fry appears briefly as the Master of Lake-town in something of a distracting cameo and has an invented-for-the-film Grima Wormtongue clone that I thought was played by Danny Dyer before coming to realise I don’t think I know who Danny Dyer is.

Evangaline Lilly

And then there’s Tauriel, because if there was anything that those darned kids were clamouring for in their Tolkienien fantasy film, it was a shoehorned-in vessel for girl power and accompanying love triangle subplot between her, one of the dwarves whose name I forgot and the World’s Dullest Man, Orlando Bloom. Evangaline Lilly may also be a good actress, I also don’t know and have never seen Lost, but if there is one adjective I wouldn’t ascribe to her, it’s elfin. A minor quibble, but The Desolation of Smaug is generous enough to give one both huge glaring faults and nitpicky flaws.

This vast array of large and small issues is perfectly encapsulated in the river barrel ride scene as the heroes escape from the elves. What was a brief, simple escape in the book becomes a roughly eight day long action scene, almost entirely CGI and therefore devoid of any craft or skill in creation and lacking any sense of tension of interest whatsoever. The World’s Dullest Man and Tauriel faff to their hearts’ content, CGI-flipping around and shooting lots of CGI arrows into CGI orcs in an excerpt from the least entertaining Pixar film ever. The fat dwarf does fat things and you can almost hear the tuba and slidewhistle in the background. Jackson almost rehashes the Boromir scene from The Fellowship of the Ring shot-for-shot when Love Triangle Dwarf gets shot by an arrow. Low-quality camcorder shots are inexplicably intercut with the rest of the footage; mixing multiple types of footage works in something like Natural Born Killers, and will probably work in NYMPH()MANIAC, but here it is less successful.

As a hilarious joke, and feel free to use this for your own ends, I sometimes refer to The Desolation of Smaug as The Desolation (of the Movie’s CG Budget by) Smaug. Smaug looks fairly impressive (although his wyvern design does end up making him look foolish and ungainly as he moves around like a confused duck) and the reveal as he emerges from under the pile of gold is great, but the rest of the film takes a hit for it. Azog, and to a greater extent Bolg, look cheap and almost unfinished, never once looking like anything other than the CG creations that they are and many of the green-screened backgrounds are just the worst. The Lord of the Rings had its fair share of naff CG (Legolas on the cave troll in The Fellowship of the Ring, for example), but every instance of janky, thirteen-year-old CG is offset by a gorgeous miniature set or excellent piece of character design (such as that aforementioned cave troll, especially compared to the three trolls from An Unexpected Journey).

So there it is, my thoughts on why Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy is the worst prequel trilogy since Lucas’ one. I don’t think I’ll be seeing There and Back Again, although having almost fallen asleep during both of the preceding films, I might if I end up with crippling insomnia or something.

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